Quora answer: How does study abroad change a person?

Mar 25 2012

I studied in England for almost ten years doing a Ph.D. at London School of economics. In London the cultural life is amazing, and so one can do what ever one wants to do culturally easily, which for me was going to Plays and watching Movies from all over the world. National Film Theater was right across Waterloo Bridge from my school so I would study during the day and go to a rare movie at night many days, so that I received a whole education in film at the same time as pursuing my other studies. And then of course there are new plays all the time, and excellent acting, and it is just the best possible place for theater experiences of the highest quality. And then London itself is a fascinating place where there are people from all over the world, living together, and so I would walk from one end of the city to the other, and came to know it like the back of my hand. Eventually I started riding my bike all over London and it increased my range to explore the city. And then there are restaurants of every description, and it is a whole adventure to find the best ones that are affordable as a student and to eat at these places and explore new cuisines from the world over. In London they have a magazine called time out which puts what is happening around the city at your fingertips. So what ever your bent you can indulge in the arts and culture to your hearts content which is a whole education in itself. And of course there are the art museums that one can visit regularly and see great art collections, which it is good to visit often to see the same pieces over and over again. I walked through the British Museum every day and tried to take a different route and see something different, but my favorite thing in the Museum was the pieces from Sutton Ho, I lived in Highgate area and regularly I would walk across all of London via the parks. You could go all the way to Kew gardens via parks with short gaps where you had to walk through streets between the parks. I would get up in the morning and walk across the Heath down to a tea shop in Hampstead to have breakfast, and then go down to school or where ever I was going to study. And between the Senate House, the Library of the London School of Economics and the British Museum there was every book that had been printed practically. So I would study in the British Museum most of the time, reading books from the Philosophy section of the Senate library. Also if you are going to the University of London you can take classes in any of its schools, and so there is a wide variety of courses on offer to be taken if one feels up to it. But if you are doing a Ph.D. there you do not have to take any classes, but you are free to spend your time studying what ever takes your fancy, and so one may learn a lot in various disciplines if one is diligent in ones pursuit of knowledge.

When you get sick finally, as I did of the city, you can get a place in the country and then live in a cottage in the countryside, as I did where it is easier to concentrate on ones studies when one starts writing ones dissertation. I lived in a village a tiny cottage and would get up everyday, go for a walk in the country, and then write for hours on the working papers for my dissertation. After the intensity of life in London living in the country is a good break, but you can always take the train down to London to get books, and see ones advisor, and do other cultural events if one is so inclined. And then trips to Scotland and Yorkshire or Brighton, or Oxford and Cambridge are also worthwhile excursions just for a break.

Eventually one returns home to America fundamentally transformed because one has actually experienced high culture, high academic institutions that are world class, and all the wonder of living in one of the worlds greatest cities, which is an adventure in itself. What one learns is that there is a whole world out there that Americans just do not know exists. The rest of the world knows it exists, and only we who think we are so powerful that we dominate the world, but we do not know that world we dominate. And we do not realize how superficial most things are in America, how shallow we are as a people, and how flimsy what we take as culture to be. We are strong in our economy due to its vastness, and we are good at technology, and we have developed powerful military that can police the world. But this world we dominate is very different from our homegrown vision of it, and basically we live in a self imposed illusion as to the nature of the relations between nations and peoples around the world because our media has oversimplified everything into trite statements, while the phenomena itself is very complex, nuanced, and with untold variety. For instance our political spectrum is just that a linear displacement along a single line from left to right. But in Europe the political field is multidimensional, and that is a wake up call for someone who only thinks of politics as linear in its inherent dimension. When all the peoples of the world converge in a single city then it is has a very rich texture which has infinite variety to experience. If you are an expatriate living overseas for a long time one is never part of their social structure, but one is not at home either, and so that gives one a kind of freedom to explore possibilities that you would not have either at home or if you were a native of the place one is living for a long time. Toruists never get the culture that they are in. It takes years to get over ones presuppositions and to actually understand the differences in the place one is living abroad. You live in places that tourists never see, but which are the real places worth being in within that culture. For instance Highgate and Hampstead are villages outside London that were engulfed by the city, and so they still have that rustic feel to some extent, and so they are different from all the other parts of London, and they verge on either side of the Heath which is the great open space in London, and so it is a good place to escape from the city without leaving it. If you don’t have a car then one walks or rides busses or the tube everywhere and so you are constantly in contact with the people of the city, and there are myriad chance meetings and friendships that develop with people normally in America one would never meet because of our encapsulated existence in suburbs, cars, and on our private property. The sameness of driving, and the fact that every shopping center has the same franchised shops, so that everything is bland here is in sharp comparison to England where there is lively street commerces and most of the shops are unique because of the way that the city was built so that the first floor of every building was a shop front. In the city there are plenty of interesting shops that you would never find elsewhere, my favorite example is the Left handed store where everything made of left handed people is available. The key is not just to visit the place but to become a resident for long enough to absorb the culture, and then you see the deep seated assumptions that American Society and Culture, such as it is, have shaped us and our relation to the world. Just as an example I met another graduate student studying math, and he invited me to his flat to talk about some esoteric sort of math he was studying in which i was interested. And it turned out that he was living in the flat where Sylvia Plath committed Suicide. He showed me the oven that she stuck her head in when she did it. It had probably not changed a bit since she lived there. If you had read Sylvia Plath’s depressing poetry, and knew who she was then this sudden surprise of being in the very place where she lived her last days and killed her self was both shocking and also gave you some insight into her desperation. Each building associated with a historic figure is marked and you can see where the famous people lived who fill our imaginations with their works. So just walking down the street in London is a history lesson in itself. History is palpable in London, as where ever you turn is a building with a plaque on it siting some famous person or some event that is well known in our history. So one is tempted to dive into history and find out the stories of those people who have plaques that you have never heard of. If you experience different value systems in foreign lands one is able to better gage ones own value system, and the lapses where we take things for granted that are just not true anywhere else in the world. For instance, what we take as poverty in our country would be riches anywhere else in the third world. In england you are more in touch with the rest of the world because of all the people you meet from other countries, you learn about things you never knew exited because our media never covers most of what is actually happening in the world.

Be transformed, get out of America for a significant period of time, somewhere where the horizons of experience open up, and for english speakers the best place to start is England. We are Elizabethans fundamentally, because that is when we broke away from England. The Indians are Victorians. But English culture has continued to evolve, some would say languish. But what is happening socially and culturally in england is something very different from our Elizabethan take on the world here in America that is so limited in every possible way. Anyone who has not experienced living abroad for extended periods has no idea of the box we are in, and which we cannot see out of. And our blindness to the reality of the Other effects the world in radical ways because we are the Romans of our day. Other countries have real culture, and civilization, and to some extent we are still barbarians, which has its good and bad points. We are naive and tend to get lured into conflicts that are not our own by the cagey English. But because we are Elizabethans we do not have the insipid qualities of English society rooted in Class structures.

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